I had been to Memphis twice before. I was there in the mid 70’s for several weeks of training to teach in an academically gifted program in Joliet, IL. Memphis Public Schools had a model Gifted and Talented program and Joliet, in an attempt to better integrate a couple of it’s schools that were physically cut off from the rest of the city, decided to put a program for gifted students into those schools, feeding it with students from all over the city. And I was in Memphis about about 5 years ago for a Progressive Ministry conference. Memphis happened to be the home of one of the founders of that movement, Phyllis Tickle. I visited part of the Civil Rights Museum at The Lorraine Motel on that trip; the part that dealt with the theories of Kings death.
The Museum proper, is stunning. It has all the glitz, bells and whistles of most of the other museums we had visited, but in a more comprehensive way. It traced the life of Black people in the US from slavery through after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Much of what we had learned on the Pilgrimage already, was recapped for us in this museum. Maybe I was just tired from the assault on my emotions, but I have to admit, as I toured the museum, I spent very little time at any one exhibit. I had some information clarified, but had reached emotion overload so not sure how much I took in.
I will never see images of people being brutalized and feel nothing. Whether the photos and videos are of slaves standing on auction blocks, with chains and shackles around them, or being set upon by dogs, or drug through crowds by police at what began as peaceful demonstrations, I will always be disturbed and feel my pulse accelerate. I’ll always feel the pressure in my eyes, of tears being held back when I read the name, Emmett Till, or hear King’s speech given the night before he was killed. I know I will never feel nonchalant, about seeing the Confederate flag, or a hangman’s noose, or even hearing people talk about lynching. All of these things are too painful. These things are not worthy of humanity.
That leads me to something I’ve thought about and even mentioned in a previous post. The last exhibit in the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine, focused on the aftermath of Kings death and the movements that emerged from the era. It looked at Black Culture and how it evolved. It looked at the plight of Native people and that of Gays and Lesbians. I appreciated the understanding that there is indeed, a relationship of the “isms”, that the fight for the rights of Black people cannot be separated from a fight for freedom, justice and the rights of others who are disenfranchised. I am glad those are logical conclusions and that it’s understood the fight(s) continue.
But to me, it seems the Civil Rights era culminated with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. With the election of Barrack Obama, many people felt America was now in a post-racial era. People were (are?) tired of talking about race, I get that. But it’s been my observation we move on too quickly. The resistance seemed to recede after King was assassinated. Just as when Evers and other Movement leaders were assassinated, the racists hoped that by cutting off the leadership, the Movement would fizzle out, it certainly seemed to with King’s death. The conversation about race seemed to be put onto a back burner. Whenever we talk of race, other things become a distraction and racism becomes sidelined. But I understand, I truly do, because I could not sustain complete focus on racism and Civil Rights for an entire week without pulling back a little! But we have to continue the resistance, we have to continue the conversation and the education and the push for diversity and inclusion. We have to continue the movement for justice.
Throughout the week, as I’ve shared my reflections, a few people have responded that what I’ve written is very dark. I agree. But the hope is in the people we met in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. The grace and openness of the people, to living more fully as citizens of the United States, and to not letting the hatred, the violence, and vileness win. The hope is with the people touched by the history, whether because they lived it, have been witnesses to it, are in other ways part of the resistance, or have been with me and the Living Legacy Pilgrimage or in other ways, immersing themselves into an experience whose intention is to not just be informed, but to be drafted into a movement that is as much needed today as it was 50 years ago.
I think I will let the stuff in my head and in my heart settle for a while, and may amend this last post with another, in a week or in a months’ time. Please know that I am tremendously grateful for the prayers and well wishes, for the stories some of you have shared with me, and for simply listening as I’ve tried to be coherent about how the experience has impacted me. I treasure your walk with me. Just knowing I was not alone in the walk, that those physically with me and those of you with me through the magic of the internet, helped me to find balance in a world I really didn’t know. Having two of my sisters with me on the trip, and a third sister and my brother and husband with me via email also meant a lot - that we could share it together, means more than I can say. Thank you all for caring. I look forward to sharing further with you as time permits.